Dino Run Mania: An Interview with PixelJam's Miles Tilman and Rich Grillotti (Part 1)

by Damian McKnight
Dino Run Mania: An Interview with PixelJam's Miles Tilman and Rich Grillotti (Part 1)

Game Studio Central is a monthly interview series in which we talk to developers from around the industry and find out what goes into creating the games we all love to play.

Independent video game studio PixelJam has managed to break a few rules. A small studio (two employees and a handful of contractors), PixelJam has managed to achieve what continues to elude many major game studios in the industry.

Street credibility.

PixelJam's popular action retro-game Dino Run, where players controls a dinosaur running across various terrains to avoid the apocalypse, has been mentioned as being influential in the development of Rocketcat Games' "Hook Champ" (one of last year's App Store indie darlings).

Their addictive Gamma Bros., was nominated for "Best Web Browser Game" at the 2007 Independent Games Festival, and the studio pair is also responsible for the beloved Adult Swim games Turbo Granny, Sausage Factory, and Mountain Maniac.

I'll let Rich and Miles do the talking, as no intro will properly do them justice.

Part One

Tell us a little about yourself.

Miles: I’m Miles Tilmann and I’ve been coding and producing games for Pixeljam since the company was founded in 2005.

Rich: I'm Rich Grillotti and I've also been creating games for/with/as Pixeljam since 2005. We both started the company together at that time.

Why did you become a game designer?

Miles: Everything else I had tried for a career was extremely unsatisfying :)

Rich: It had always been a fantasy, and at some point some convergence happened between Miles and myself and our friend Mark DeNardo who was already a talented chiptunes artist at the time.

We realized it was possible to make a simple game and went for it. Then we realized how awesome it was and kept on going with it.

Did you need a particular educational background?

Miles: I think all you really need is a passion for creation and the rest will follow. Having some formal training in Art, Design or Programming wouldn't’t hurt though.

We spent the first few years of the company’s existence just trying to figure out the technical side of things. It would have been better if we had some of that knowledge beforehand.

Rich: For designing games, the education was simply having grown up playing games and a real enthusiasm for video games that never quite left. For the art side, it helped that I had a lot of experience with Photoshop, which began with art and design classes in college, and had also been making abstract pixel art animations for a few years before turning Pixeljam into our game company.

But making pixel art in particular is certainly something someone can learn on their own if they have a desire.

What skills are important for a video game designer to have? Can those skills be taught?

Miles: A very important skill would be the ability to imagine (and play) the game fully in your mind before you take any steps to create it. It’s almost like a meditation.

To us, design is a not a skill like building a house, it’s more like playing an instrument. Although it’s more like playing a instrument very slowly, over months and months, even years.

Rich: Yes, the ability to envision how your ideas will play out will help a lot and save time. Prototyping basic ideas & game play mechanics before getting into the game details is also very helpful, to go along with envisioning in your mind.

I don't think the actual impulse or desire to do something creative (like making games) can be taught, but if one has that, all the necessary elements can be learned. As for skills, are patience and dedication skills? they really help.

It's hard to say particular skills, since so many are required. It's good to work with others that have complementary skills to your own. This is one reason Miles and I work so well together.

What’s the best part of being a video game designer?

Miles: The beginning of the project when the only job is to sit down with a notebook and start sketching out ideas. It’s kind of like doodling when you were a kid, but now you eventually get to see those creations come to life. It’s always a very exciting prospect.

Rich: It's almost all pretty fun, for the most part. It's great to be creating worlds and universes, bringing characters & personalities to "life", inventing rules and challenges for people to experience. I enjoy the ability to create in general.

I also enjoy that there's unlimited possibility of what a game can be & where this may lead. I guess it depends on the circumstance as well.. I haven't worked for a large company as a game designer, we've only done it for ourselves, so my perspective is limited.

We have a lot of freedom to create our own ideas in Pixeljam, even when working on games for hire for the most part.

What are the tools of your trade? Your favorite?

Miles: Graph paper and a pen is pretty much the only way I like to do it, although recently I’ve been honing the designs directly in the Flash Authoring Tool.

Rich: I use regular sketch books (no grid) when brainstorming and exploring general ideas, making notes. I also do some designing in Photoshop directly for playing with ideas, and I work in Photoshop almost completely once I'm making graphics & animations. Then I give the files to Miles and he brings them into flash, usually making vector graphics out of them.

Favorite games you have developed recently?

Miles: We’ve made 2 games recently for Adult Swim that I’m pretty proud of… Corporate Climber and Mountain Maniac Xmas.

Rich: Right, for recent games, those are my favorites. I think they came out really well. MMX is just plain fun destroying cute & colorful stuff, rolling & bouncing around.

Corporate Climber is fun too (to me) & was the most graphically challenging of all the styles I've worked on so far. The game goes sorta of deep, & there are a number of detailed animations going on in that game that people may never even notice.

Continue to Part Two of the discussion »

In Part Two, Rich and Miles discuss the game development process and their views on the evolution of the game industry.

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